Three of Ngozi Onwurah’s exceptional shorts were screened at the fifteenth London Short Film Festival this January. Ngozi was a member of the late 1980s avant-garde, making socio-political films about the experiences of marginalised people. She was also the only Black British female filmmaker to have a feature film – Welcome II the Terrordome (1995) – released in UK cinemas for a long damn time.
My favourite of the three was The Body Beautiful (1991), a deeply empathetic exploration of the relationship between physical disability and sexuality, aided by extraordinary aesthetic imagery. Neither documentary nor fiction, the film opens with the shot of a white mother and black daughter, naked and embracing. Ngozi casts Sian Ejiwumi-Le Berre as her teenage self, and her real mum, Madge Onwurah, in the lead role. The young Ngozi is working as a fashion model, and she is forced to conform to the stereotype of the highly sexualised black woman on set – her photographer calls for her to give ‘sex’ and ‘passion’. Madge has lost a breast to cancer and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. While Ngozi possesses a casual confidence, and is realising her sexual appeal as a young mixed race woman, Madge is experiencing post-surgery anxiety. Part way through the film, a scene of a tender, uninhibited, erotic fantasy between Madge and a young black man is a reminder that disability does not erode sexuality. It’s beautiful and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this on screen, ever.
At the close of The Body Beautiful, the shot of mother and daughter embracing is repeated. Only once we’ve witnessed the intertwining of their experiences does the full significance of this embrace become clear – it carries the weight of inclusion and exclusion, of a mother and daughter, each gifted with something the other cannot access.
Coffee Coloured Children (1988) takes a gruelling look at growing up mixed-race in 1980s England. It begins pleasantly, with archive footage of people of various ethnicities, accompanied by the fitting Blue Mink song ‘Melting Pot’ – but the tone shifts very quickly. The voices of two children, a brother and sister, narrate over scenes of abuse, one of which shows a young, trendy white man smearing faeces on the children’s front door. In another scene, the boy’s monologue is paused, and in the absence of his voice, we hear him being called ‘monkey’ in the playground. Back at their home, the young girl paints her face white, ‘because if I was white, they won’t call us names’, she says.
At one point in the film, scenes of the brother and sister interweave in the bath. Both children aggressively scrub their skin with Vim so they can get the black off. They scrub so quickly, so hard, that I expect to see blood at any moment. But it just won’t go, the blackness (nor should it) – a realisation that helps them recognise that whiteness is unattainable, and that it’s time to accept themselves for who they are. ‘I’m strong now, because no one will ever be able to hurt me the way I’ve hurt myself’ the children say at the end of the film, showing the way in which self-hate can develop great resilience.
Last to be screened was Flight Of The Swan (1992) a film about a girl who dreams of becoming a lead ballerina, played by the actress Hilja Lindsay-Muwonge. Her fellow dancers, all white, mock her. ‘Can you imagine having a black swan? Everyone’s going to think she’s fallen down a coal shoot.’ In a panel held after the screening, Lindsay-Muwonge argued that nothing had changed since she played the role in 1992, because – as far as she was concerned – she hadn’t seen any black leads in professional ballet. The audience demurred, but they could only cite one, maybe two, examples to contradict her. The rule that black people cannot perform in lead roles like Princess Odette is still in place; the few exceptions only prove it.
Ngozi also addressed the audience after the screening. She doesn’t see the showcasing of her films 30 years later as a reappraisal, she said, but rather as part of a repetitive cycle. Her cynicism was evident and understandable – it’s disappointing that the issues explored in her films still feel pertinent. She described the screening as a ‘groundhog day’, because every eight or so years, she’s invited to present these works again. Every time there’s apparently a ‘new’ awareness about diversity, women’s issues and disability.
Ngozi’s works were ground-breaking in their time, and three decades later, they still are – and they must continue to be shown, to carry on the discussion. Because, despite the frustrations, repetitive conversation is better than none at all.